Prowers County sits just shy of the Kansas border. Most of the 14,219 people who live here struggle to survive by growing winter wheat and grazing cattle. They know other Coloradans may not consider their home on the southeastern plains to be one of the state's more scenic regions, but they savor the long vistas, quiet country pleasures and even the wind. The incessant, relentless wind.
"A lot of people have always said that the only thing we're sure of here is the wind," says Prowers County Commissioner John Stulp.
Just south of Lamar, the county seat, 12,000 acres of cattle-ranching country will soon sprout 108 wind turbines. At full power, those turbines will generate 162 megawatts of electricity for Xcel Energy -- enough to serve the energy needs of about 160,000 people, or 6 percent of the metro area's population.
Wind energy is a renewable technology that has gone from far out to the Fortune 500, powered in this state by an unusual coalition of conservative Republicans, environmentalists and ranchers. Colorado Green, which will be the fifth-largest wind farm in the United States, could blow new life into eastern Colorado. Already, several national energy companies have been snooping around Prowers County, looking for additional sites for wind farms. And there's even talk of expanding Colorado Green -- before it's gone on line.
"We're told this area is in the top 20 percent of locations for producing wind energy in the U.S.," says Stulp, whose own ranch hosts new transmission lines for the turbines.
Beyond providing energy for Xcel's power grid, Stulp expects Colorado Green to boost county tax revenues by about 20 percent. Although 200 construction workers will leave when the facility is finished, twenty full-time jobs will have been created. Farmers leasing sections of their property for the turbines will gain an additional source of revenue. And even Lamar's municipal power authority will take advantage of the power play, ordering four wind turbines constructed on a hill east of town that will generate six megawatts of electricity at full blast -- enough energy for nearly half the county. (A megawatt is the amount of power required at any given moment by a community of 1,000 people.)
The people of Prowers County are at the forefront of a remarkable transformation that promises to change life for everyone in Colorado. For the first time, a renewable energy source that doesn't pollute and doesn't require drilling or strip mining has become cost-competitive with some fossil fuels.
The timing couldn't be better: One in five Xcel customers has fallen behind on his bills this fall, after natural-gas prices skyrocketed by 73 percent. (Under Colorado law, the utility is allowed to pass those costs on to its customers.) Every summer seems to bring a new record high temperature, adding to the fear that carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels is starting to alter the climate. And as America gets bogged down in Iraq and energy costs continue to rise, more Americans are pressing for alternatives. So after decades of being scorned as impractical and expensive, renewables -- particularly wind energy -- are gaining respect.
Wind is now the fastest-growing form of energy generation in the world. America's wind-energy capacity has grown to 4,700 megawatts in the past three decades, enough electricity to power almost 2 million homes.
"It's domestically produced, and we don't have to send an army anywhere to defend it," says Stulp, a plainspoken man who has farmed and ranched in Prowers County for decades.
Anyone who sees the huge blades of a wind turbine rotate in the breeze is watching electricity being made. The blades spin a shaft connected to a generator that makes electricity, in much the same way that torrents of water coursing through a dam create hydropower or coal-fired boilers generate steam that rotates a turbine and charges an electric field. Each wind turbine is connected to transmission lines that funnel the electricity to an electric company's main power grid and then on to consumers.
"The source of the energy is free," says Stulp. "No one has a market on the wind."
But wind energy faces other obstacles in getting to consumers.
In 2001, Xcel proposed building a new, natural-gas-fired plant to meet Colorado's growing need for electricity. Under the laws that govern utilities in Colorado, Xcel had to prove to the state Public Utilities Commission that its proposed facility was the best option for ratepayers. In its filings with the PUC, Xcel claimed that natural gas is the most cost-effective energy option.
But a coalition of environmental groups, including the Colorado Renewable Energy Society and the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (now known as Western Resource Advocates), immediately challenged Xcel's plan, arguing that wind power is the most efficient and economical source of electricity.
"There was a wind developer with a good project and a good price," says Rick Gilliam of Western Resource Advocates. "We went to the PUC and asked them why wind shouldn't be a part of the mix."
During a week-long hearing before the PUC, Xcel and its opponents debated the merits of wind power versus natural gas. Xcel pointed to its 2000 study that projected that gas prices would rise at the rate of inflation for the next eighteen years (an estimate that proved to be spectacularly wrong, as Xcel customers now know), and said that natural gas would therefore be the cheapest way to provide the additional capacity needed.
Xcel's witnesses also testified that the backup generators required for wind energy would cost another $41 million over fifteen years. PUC staffers, however, studied utility companies' experiences in other states and determined that the added costs would be only $3 million to $6 million over that same period.
Gilliam told the commissioners that eastern Colorado would be an ideal setting for a wind-energy plant, because the wind there blows at speeds in excess of 15 miles per hour much of the time. "Colorado has great wind," he says. "The wind is right where we need it to be in economically depressed areas. There's also sufficient transmission to make it work."
In March 2001, the PUC ruled that wind power was the most economical option and ordered Xcel to use a wind-energy facility rather than another natural-gas plant. The utility company soon contracted with Enron Wind (which became GE Wind after the Enron bankruptcy) to buy power from Colorado Green, its proposed wind farm near Lamar. In October of this year, GE Wind sold the still-under-construction facility to a partnership between PPM Energy (a division of ScottishPower) and Shell WindEnergy (part of Royal Dutch Shell) for $212 million.
Since then, gas prices have risen substantially and changed all earlier projections. Xcel now estimates that the wind plant will save its customers at least $7 million over the next twenty years.
The major deterrent to wind energy, of course, is that the wind doesn't always blow (thus the need for backup generators). A utility can throw a load of coal into a generating plant anytime, but it has to accept that electricity generation through wind energy is linked to the weather.
"It's a culture change," says Gilliam. "We've seen this with utilities all over the country. There's a learning curve here on how to integrate wind into the grid."
Advances in technology are making it easier for utilities to make the psychological switch. Weather forecasting has become more precise, and short-term forecasts more reliable. Also, the new turbines now coming on line are better able to change blade positions to take advantage of shifts in the breeze. The turbines being installed south of Lamar, for example, have 70.5-meter rotor blades that are placed on top of 80-meter towers (the higher you go, the stronger the wind). At the center of the rotors is a box -- it can be as large as a school bus -- that contain tons of equipment, including sensors that detect changes in wind patterns and send the information to a central server that continually adjusts the turbines' speed as conditions change.
As more wind sites come on line, they balance out the power load: If the wind isn't blowing in Lamar, it probably is in Sterling.
"We're constantly learning more about wind," says Xcel spokesman Steve Roalstad. "That's the beauty of this resource."
Xcel runs a highly successful program, Wind Source, that lets customers pay an added charge in order to fund wind energy. Currently, 27,000 residential and business customers are enrolled in the voluntary program, paying an average of $15 a month to help support Xcel's two existing wind farms: Ponnequin, just east of I-25 at the Wyoming state line, and Peetz Table, near Sterling, each of which supplies about 32 megawatts of electricity.
Because there's no way to separate the electricity generated by the wind farms from Xcel's overall power supply, those who pay into the Wind Source program are boosting wind power generally, rather than getting their own energy directly from a renewable source.
Colorado Green will give a huge boost to Xcel's wind-energy supply, but even once that facility's on line, wind will make up less than 3 percent of the total energy generated by the company. In Colorado, coal is still king: Eighty-one percent of the state's energy comes from coal, and 15 percent from natural gas. While coal-fired plants are notorious for belching filthy air into the atmosphere, they create the cheapest power available, costing about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with about 5 cents for natural gas and wind.
But power from coal has hidden costs, according to Ronald Lehr, the former chairman of the PUC who now works as an attorney for the American Wind Energy Association. "The price we pay for health care and pollution are outside the cost structure of coal," he says. "Look at emergency-room admissions during pollution alerts; part of that is coming from coal. There's also the risk we're going to trash the climate. Those costs go somewhere."
Most cost comparisons between coal and wind energy are based on coal plants that were built decades ago, he adds, and coal isn't as cheap if you factor in the cost of building a new power plant. Xcel is planning to build a 750-megawatt coal-driven plant near Pueblo or Brush, much to Lehr's disgust. But even Lehr doesn't expect that all of Colorado's energy needs can be met with wind, because of the inherently fickle nature of the resource -- a problem known as "intermittency" in the industry.
"Wind is currently about 30 percent efficient," says Roalstad. "That's because of intermittency. On average, a 162-megawatt plant puts out 48.6 megawatts. If the 750-megawatt plant were converted to wind, we'd need 2,500 acres and 500 turbines. It's a question of efficiency and cost. Coal is still the most cost-effective and reliable energy source."
Lehr would like to see Xcel put out a request for proposals to determine if other power sources could supply the state's needs. "What they should do is go out to bid and put the numbers on the table for the coal plant," he says. "They should find out what the wind guys are willing to do."
Under the state laws that govern Xcel, the utility is supposed to put a priority on finding the cheapest sources of power. But if the climate changes as radically in the next few decades as many fear it will, building a huge new coal-fired plant may come to be seen as an act of folly.
"There is real evidence that the use of fossil fuels is increasing the temperature of the earth," says state senator Ken Gordon, who recently sponsored a forum on renewable energy. "The polar ice caps are melting, and 10,000 people died from heat last summer in Europe. We might be telling our kids we remember when people could ski in Colorado."
While Colorado has remarkable potential to be a trailblazer in renewable energy, so far the General Assembly hasn't managed to do anything with it.
For the past two years, state lawmakers have squabbled over a bill that would mandate that Xcel produce a larger percentage of its energy from renewables. Despite the fact that Xcel, Governor Bill Owens and most of the legislature's political leadership support the legislation -- and twelve other states have established such mandates -- the bill keeps getting killed in committee.
Speaker of the House Lola Spradley has sponsored the legislation, which would gradually increase the number of megawatts Xcel would have to collect from renewable sources from 500 megawatts in 2006 to 1,800 megawatts by 2020. The proposal is modeled after Texas's plan, which has been credited with making that state a national leader in the creation of wind energy.
Spradley's bill would apply to all investor-owned utilities in the state, and Xcel is by far the largest of these. The PUC only regulates privately owned utilities, though, while several cities in Colorado, including Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, have municipal power departments that serve their residents. And many rural parts of the state are served by locally owned cooperatives known as rural electric associations. Neither the municipal power authorities nor the REAs would be affected by the proposed law.
Spradley is from Beulah, in southern Colorado, and she believes that wind power and biomass -- a developing technology that converts agricultural wastes like cornstalks and scrap timber into fuel -- have the potential to boost rural incomes. Right now, farmers and ranchers can earn up to $2,000 a year for each wind turbine placed on their property. "I think it will help agriculture," she says. "That's my passion for this bill."
Last session, it was killed in the Senate Business Affairs committee by one vote. Senator Stephanie Takis of Adams County, the lone Democrat on the committee to vote against the bill, says she was annoyed that two similar bills on renewable energy were moving through the Colorado Senate, including one that had already been approved by the committee. "I saw no sense in sending two bills forward," says Takis, who insists she is a supporter of renewable energy. (The bill that the Senate approved was later killed in conference committee.)
Senator Steve Johnson of Larimer County, a Republican, voted against the bill in committee, too. "I think an artificial mandate set by the government is not the way to go," he says. "As technology lowers the cost, I think renewable energy will be able to stand on its own merits. Renewable energy should be a choice for people, not a mandate."
Colorado's rural utilities also oppose Spradley's proposal, even though its proponents believe that rural areas have the most to gain from alternative energy.
The Colorado Rural Electric Association represents 22 small co-ops that serve the sparsely settled areas of the state. The group's executive director, Ray Clifton, says that his association objects to the state imposing a mandate and believes that greater use of alternatives will increase costs. "If the program is economical, why do you have to have a mandate to do it?" he asks.
Spradley believes a state mandate is necessary so that Xcel and other utility companies can invest in renewable energies with confidence. "This gives the utilities an assurance that investments in renewables are safe," she explains. "As renewables become competitive, the utilities need to be encouraged to put them in."
Although Spradley exempted REAs from the state mandate, four of Clifton's member co-ops buy their power from Xcel and would be affected by such a law. "Any increase in cost that would come about would be a cost increase to them," says Clifton. "From that standpoint, we're opposed to it."
It wasn't an easy decision for the CREA to reach. The group recognized that many of its constituents would love to have the revenue from wind turbines. "That is something we've wrestled with," Clifton says. "Most wind farms are located on one piece of property. You're not talking about economic development that will be shared by lots of people. You might have three people sharing in the lease payments. Is that enough economic development to be offset by the increase to the rest of the ratepayers?"
The CREA's position exasperates supporters of wind power, who are convinced that it could save tiny communities on the eastern plains. Besides providing construction dollars and lease payments, they point out, wind farms would pay property taxes that support local schools and county governments. "This could put a billion dollars of economic development in rural Colorado," says Lehr. "Why are their locally owned cooperatives standing in the way of this?"
Stephanie Bonin of Environment Colorado, an environmental offshoot of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, has been lobbying the legislature on behalf of Spradley's bill, putting together a coalition that ranges from the state AFL-CIO to the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and has the support of fifteen counties, including rural Elbert, Kit Carson, Cheyenne and Washington on the eastern plains. "Our laws are abysmal," she says. "Why are we so far behind? All the states that are succeeding have a renewable-energy standard."
California's is probably the most ambitious, calling for 20 percent of the state's fuel supply to come from renewables by 2017 -- and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently called for boosting that target to 33 percent by 2020. Texas passed a law requiring that 2,000 megawatts of the state's power come from renewable sources by 2009, and the result has been a string of wind farms in depressed west Texas that have made the state a leader in wind energy; so much electricity is coming out of there that a new transmission line may have to be built to accommodate the power. Nevada has mandated that 15 percent of its energy come from renewables by 2013, with special incentives for solar energy. Minnesota has the most comprehensive energy-conservation program in the nation, which is credited with saving Minnesotans hundreds of millions of dollars in utility costs. And both New York and New Jersey have made commitments to cap their emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.
While Spradley is hoping that the third time will be the charm for her bill, environmentalists aren't waiting for the state to act. They're going directly to Colorado's cities and demanding that they commit to renewable energy.
In March, Fort Collins, which owns its power company, set a goal of reducing per capita electric consumption by 10 percent by 2012 and expanding the percentage of renewable energy to 15 percent by 2017. In Denver, a push is now under way for a mandate that Xcel provide 20 percent of the city's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The City of Denver's franchise agreement with Xcel -- a twenty-year contract that gives the utility access to the streets and other city-owned property -- expires in 2006, and environmentalists want any new agreement to include an increase in renewable energy.
"We see Colorado as being blessed with abundant wind power that could be a boon to Denver's economy," says John Rosapepe of the Sierra Club. "We see this as a good combination of urban and rural interests."
Xcel could meet such a requirement by building a 200-megawatt wind farm for Denver, a facility somewhat larger than Colorado Green. (Such a plant wouldn't be located anywhere near Denver, however: The city isn't windy enough to support a wind farm.)
Other big cities are well ahead of Denver. Voters in San Francisco approved a law requiring that city to invest in solar and wind power, and a huge array of solar collectors will be placed on the roof of the Moscone Convention Center. Seattle has launched an effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and meet the targets of the Kyoto accords -- the international agreement to restrict the release of climate-altering carbon dioxide that President George Bush refused to sign. Chicago okayed a contract with Commonwealth Edison that requires the utility to buy 10 percent of its power from renewables and to boost that number to 20 percent in five years.
During his campaign last spring, John Hickenlooper said that he wanted Denver to become a leader in energy conservation, and as mayor, he's expressed interest in the Sierra Club's proposal. Members of Hickenlooper's staff are investigating the idea, but it's too soon to say if the city will include a demand for renewables in its franchise agreement with Xcel, according to spokeswoman Lindy Eichenbaum Lent.
"We don't negotiate in the press," she adds.
Despite the legislature's inability to create a statewide policy, Colorado is still a center for renewable-energy activity.
That's because the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is located in Golden. Founded by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute, the lab has weathered budget bloodletting and the whims of politicians, still managing to do cutting-edge research vital to wind power and a host of other innovative technologies.
But it hasn't been easy. Early on, it seemed that the federal government was determined to destroy its own creation.
In the late '70s, memories of the 1973 oil embargo were still fresh when Congress bestowed a $120 million annual budget on SERI. In 1979, President Carter appointed Denis Hayes to be the first director of the start-up research facility. At 35, Hayes was already a legendary figure in the environmental movement: He'd organized the original Earth Day in 1970 and was one of the earliest proponents of renewable energy.
Hayes quickly made his mark as SERI's director. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and was constantly in the public eye, touting the vast potential of solar energy. Hayes believed his agency had a responsibility beyond just research, and he funded promotional activities designed to help create markets for renewable energy. SERI spent $100,000 to build twelve homes with photovoltaic cells on their roofs in the Denver area, then sponsored an open house that drew 100,000 people in a single weekend. Carter himself visited a local restaurant that had installed a solar-powered dishwasher.
But the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled a dramatic reversal in federal energy policy. Suddenly, renewable energy was seen as an expensive boondoggle, and the government instead encouraged new oil and gas drilling and nuclear power.
Hayes was fired from SERI in 1981, but he went out with a bang, holding a news conference at which he accused the Reagan administration of waging "open war on solar energy." He described Reagan's Department of Energy as being run by "dull gray men in dull gray suits in dull gray offices thinking dull gray thoughts and writing dull gray reports."
Not long after, SERI's budget was slashed by more than half, and 300 staffers lost their jobs. But the lab survived the cuts, earning enough support from Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress to carry on with a reduced mission, looking for ways to make solar energy cheaper and easier to use.
The election of George Bush Sr. in 1988 brought more changes to the lab. Bush didn't share Reagan's aversion to renewable energy, and in 1991 he okayed a major reorganization that transformed SERI into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Going from a research institute to a national laboratory was a huge jump in status: The country has only eleven national labs, and they're widely viewed as the government's top research facilities.
"It changed our status as far as recognition and funding," says James Johnson, a senior engineer with the National Wind Technology Center, part of NREL. Today the lab has about 1,100 employees and an annual budget of approximately $231 million.
The wind center is on the north side of Rocky Flats along Highway 128, and its large turbines have become a landmark on the windswept prairie at the base of the foothills. The center was created by Carter in 1976 as part of the Department of Energy and placed on the DOE's Rocky Flats facility; it later was absorbed by NREL.
The center can take much of the credit for wind energy's cost-competitiveness. Its lab spent years redesigning the rotors on wind turbines -- originally based on helicopter technology from the 1940s -- so that the huge fiberglass blades would rotate more reliably, substantially boosting the efficiency of wind power and lowering the cost. The lab's breakthrough designs emerged between 1996 and 1999 and almost immediately sparked new demand for wind power. (Enron Wind consulted with the lab when planning Colorado Green.) Today the costs of wind energy are roughly equivalent to those of natural gas, at about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour wholesale.
"In the early '80s, wind was 40 cents a kilowatt-hour," Johnson says. "A lot of the air work we did here increased the efficiency of those machines by 30 percent. The big challenge is to try and become even more competitive. Our goal is to be at 3 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2012."
To reach that goal, the lab has several projects under way. One is looking at cheaper ways to build turbines, because one of the biggest costs for wind developers is installation. Hauling enormous cranes onto the plains of eastern Colorado is difficult and expensive, so NREL is trying to find easier methods of erecting the turbines, which are often as tall as a thirty-story building.
"North and South Dakota are two of the windiest states in the country, but they don't have cranes," notes Johnson. "North Dakota has enough wind to produce 25 percent of the energy in the U.S."
Most of the wind farms now being developed are in high-wind areas known as Class 6, which means they have average wind speeds of 15 miles per hour at a height of 33 feet. There are a limited number of such sites in the country, and almost all of them are in remote areas far from transmission lines, such as North Dakota. But if turbines can be designed that will produce low-cost electricity in Class 4 areas, where the wind blows at 13 miles per hour at a height of 33 feet, it will revolutionize wind energy, since there are many such areas near large cities and existing transmission lines.
NREL is focusing on designing turbines for lower wind-speed areas, turbines that are taller and have even larger blades. To maximize efficiency, new software will be required that can instantly readjust the rotors based on wind speed and direction.
All of this research starts inside the wind-testing facility, which resembles an airplane hangar. A turbine suspended from the ceiling is attached to a device that can shake it violently for hours, simulating the fiercest windstorm. "We can shake out problems before the machine is even installed in the field," boasts Johnson. "This is the only place in the world that does this kind of testing."
The rotors now being tested are 120 feet long -- even wider than the wingspan of a 747 -- and NREL will soon have to build an even bigger testing site. "We need a facility twice as long and three times as wide," he says. "We anticipate rotors twice as big as this."
But while wind power is now the sexiest form of renewable energy, even its most ardent supporters agree that it will never be able to meet all of America's energy needs. "We're not going to provide 100 percent of our power from wind, ever," says Environment Colorado's Bonin. "We're not kidding ourselves. Ultimately, more power will come from solar than from wind."
The promise of solar power has pushed the search for renewable energy since the '70s. It's not hard to see why: Solar energy is non-polluting, the sun shines everywhere (even if not all the time), and people can draw the electricity they need for their homes right out of the sky, potentially freeing them from utility lines and electric bills.
But solar has yet to live up to its potential. While research has brought the cost of producing solar energy down substantially, to 18 to 22 cents a kilowatt-hour -- a fourfold decline since 1980, according to NREL -- it is still more expensive than the 5 to 7 cents a kilowatt-hour that fossil fuels typically retail for.
Installing solar photovoltaic panels on a typical home's roof would cost about $30,000 (which includes a backup battery) and meet more than half the home's electric needs. "The thing about solar is, a big, flat roof is all you need," says Carol Tombari, a senior project leader at NREL who works on solar energy. Despite solar's higher rates, she believes the rising costs of natural gas will eventually make solar energy seem more feasible.
"If natural-gas prices keep going up, 18 cents a kilowatt-hour won't look that bad," Tombari points out.
NREL's solar research efforts are now concentrated on finding cheaper and more efficient materials to manufacture the photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity. The lab is working on developing "thin films" of semiconductor material that can be made translucent and applied over roofs or incorporated into architectural glass. This technology holds the promise of dramatically reducing the cost of solar energy -- to as little as 7 cents a kilowatt-hour by the end of the decade -- as well as making it easy for solar panels to be incorporated into building designs.
The lab is also exploring techniques to lower the cost of "concentrated" solar power. In this type of solar, large parabolic mirrors concentrate sunlight into a "receiver" that heats oil, which is then used to create electricity in a conventional steam generator. This technology is already producing power at 12 to 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in the Mojave Desert.
NREL is considering biomass, too, investigating whether materials as diverse as corn, timber scrap and even solid wastes can be converted into fuel in "bio-refineries." NREL has partnered with DuPont to explore the possibility of building such a refinery.
The lab is also doing major research on hydrogen power, which could someday create an automobile with virtually no emissions. This $1.2 billion "FreedomCAR" initiative was announced with great drama by President George W. Bush during his State of the Union address this past January. Hydrogen power is created when hydrogen gas is combined with oxygen, generating energy and water as by-products, with none of the toxic substances and global-warming gases that come from burning gasoline. But hydrogen power is still decades away from being practical, and while environmentalists welcomed Bush's endorsement of hydrogen power, many viewed it as a cynical ploy by the administration. "It's a way to avoid taking action on fuel-economy improvements," says Brendan Bell of the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C., office.
While the solar revolution predicted over two decades ago has yet to occur, former SERI director Hayes still believes solar power will one day be the earth's primary fuel.
"At some point, solar power will be the largest single source of electricity," he says. "Solar offers the largest resource base of high-quality energy. Unlike oil, coal and even wind, every country has commercial quantities of sunlight. And with economies of mass production, solar offers the greatest potential for very low prices. The largest hangup has been storage, for those times when the sun doesn't shine. With the emergence of hydrogen technologies, that problem is en route to an affordable solution."
Today Hayes runs the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, which promotes renewable energy and other environmental causes in the Pacific Northwest. He says it's been hard to watch worldwide leadership in renewables slip away from the United States as Europe and Japan ramp up their investments. When SERI's budget was slashed, hundreds of talented scientists lost their jobs; three of them went on to win the Nobel Prize -- in other fields.
"In 1980, America was the undisputed world leader in all renewable-energy technologies," Hayes notes. "Europe and Japan have experienced a vibrant growth of renewable energy. Denmark and Germany now lead the world in wind devices. Japan is arguably the global leader in solar photovoltaics. America, instead, has experienced a glut of 12-mile-per-gallon SUVs."
The Europeans have poured enormous resources into wind energy and are starting to reap the benefits. Denmark already generates an astonishing 25 percent of its electricity from the wind, while the U.S. has yet to reach even 1 percent. But because almost all of its oil has to be imported, Europe also has much higher energy costs -- and so environment-friendly political parties are much more powerful there.
According to Hayes, several factors reduced the cost of energy in the U.S. and removed the sense of urgency that Americans once felt to find alternatives to fossil fuels. Industry invested heavily in energy-efficiency improvements, which lowered demand. And oil-producing countries in the Middle East not only boosted production, but they became less adept at manipulating prices than they were in the '70s. "All of this led to a world oil price that today is about half what I'd expected it to be by now," says Hayes.
Bush's energy bill, still stalled in Congress when legislators broke for the holidays, emphasizes increased exploration for oil and natural gas, offering billions in tax breaks to those industries. But NREL's budget has stayed flat, making it clear that renewable energy is not a major priority for this administration.
While Colorado lawmakers debate whether to mandate that the state get 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020, Hayes points out that the whole country would have already met that goal if America had sustained the policies put in place by Carter.
"We had a genuine, viable option in 1980 of taking steps that would have met Carter's goal of 20 percent of national energy from renewables by 2000," he says. "We chose to head in a different direction, and the result is that we are shipping boxcar-loads of dollars each year to the Middle East. We are far more vulnerable than we were at the time of the 1973 oil embargo, and we are changing the earth's climate."
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The farmers in Prowers County keep a close eye on that climate. With ranching and farming increasingly precarious, they have high hopes for wind energy and the turbines that are sometimes the most lucrative crops sprouting on their land.
"I think there's no question it will help wherever it's established," Stulp says of wind energy. "It's a clean product and doesn't utilize water.
"The economic return to the farmer and ranchers will be extremely helpful. They don't take up a lot of room. You can graze cattle right under them."